Early 21st century: Finland is like an overachieving schoolchild. The accolades are numerous. Top of the world in the Human Capital Report announced last month, topping the world higher education charts, and a number of other things listed here. Not bad for a country whose population is significantly smaller than London, and which is the most sparsely-populated in the EU.
But it wasn’t always like this. As recently as the mid-18th century, Finland was a wilderness controlled by Sweden. Its population had been ravaged by war, plague and famine, and it was under attack from Russia. Sweden, wanting to strengthen its borders, decided to build a fortress on a group of six islands just off the coast of Helsingfors – now Helsinki – which was then a tiny, poor town of just 1500 people that had been burned down by the Russians just years earlier.
The fortress was called Sveaborg – Sweden’s Fortress – but since Finnish independence in the early 20th century has been renamed Suomenlinna – Finland’s Fortress. Although hugely costly to the Swedes, and ultimately ineffective, as Russia took control of Finland at the start of the 19th century, it helped to establish Helsinki and went on to become an important symbol of national pride for the Finns in their own struggle for independence. It’s now a popular tourist destination, with over half a million visitors per year, and conservation site.